Paris Is Burning (1990): 'It's Got To Be Real'

A love letter to Jennie Livingston's seminal documentary on NYC ball culture

Paris is Burning introduced me to some of the most dazzlingly beautiful characters I’ve ever seen on film. From the minute Pepper LeBeija saunters and sashays her way through the crowd of hollering, audibly envious and devoted young men and women, you know you’re being given the chance to peer through the looking glass, at a group too often maligned and derided.

These sharp tongued beings spend their weeks hustling and thieving to get it together for the Ballroom. It’s their moment, their time to shine away from the prejudice and fear of the mainstream, to explore every fantasy and opportunity that could have been theirs were it not for that ‘unhappy accident' of their race and sexuality.

The categories of these Balls; Butch Queen, High Fashion Parisian, School Boy Realness, Military Realness, are like a slap in the face, a wake-up call to the performance that’s supposed to be our ‘identity’. These individuals have been shunned, signaled as abnormal, and yet the society that has rejected them is the one they portray and perfect in their performances at the Ball.

These ‘outsiders’ want nothing more than to live the lives they see the rich and white of the world  playing at; Willi Ninja (architect behind the influential Voguing dance craze) talks of plans to take the movement to Japan , and one day “make the real Paris burn.” The statuesque Octavia St. Laurent longs to make it as a model, joining the ranks of those beauty inspirations that peer down on her from the posters on her bedroom wall.

Most heartbreaking of all, the huskily uttered desires of Venus Xtravaganza; to be a spoilt, rich, white girl who lives in the suburbs with her husband in their house with the white picket fence. Venus is found murdered in a hotel room, stuffed underneath the bed and left for four days before being found. It’s a cruel reminder that the Ballroom is a moment of play in the stark realities of life.

Drugs, prostitution, theft; these are the main forms of livelihood for a lot of these individuals, ostracised from their own homes and neighbourhoods in their earliest teens, and since then finding their alternative families on the Harlem backstreet's. 

With the harsh actuality of the cast's lives, it's necessary to note the legacy of the film. Our modern day trail blazers have picked up where Paris is Burning left off, with artists such as Azealia Banks and Ru Paul, this sub-culture has become the definition and decider of what is hot right now, and we're all left trying to keep up. 

As the Master of Ceremonies demands as the Ball gets under-way and Pepper teaches the kids what it is to be the Belle of the Ball, “Learn it, and learn it well.”

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz